Since Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in his 1959 book, The Landmarks of Tomorrow, product designers, developers and marketers have sought to tap into this high-value market space with new products and technology.

However, the typical knowledge worker’s training, temperament, and vocation present unique challenges with regard to delighting this particular audience.

Unique challenges of designing for knowledge workers

Drucker defined knowledge workers as “high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal training, to develop products and services.” Reaching this deeply analytical, high-performing audience poses some obstacles for product designers in any field. I can tell you as a knowledge worker myself, having come to product design after a decade as a lawyer, that these challenges commonly include:

Overcoming skepticism: Most knowledge workers are analytical and maybe skeptical - both by nature and training. A significant part of analysis for the knowledge worker is considering the gaps and risks at hand. It is well within the knowledge worker’s purview to look for what’s missing before all else.

Meeting high expectations: Knowledge workers are held to high standards by their clients, organizations, and themselves. For those of us in the business of serving these professionals, we know that to meet these expectations, they rely on information and data to do their work, and in today’s connected world, there is no shortage of information and data.

While all this can be a boon, it also comes with high expectations from both internal and external clients. The more information and data you have, the higher the expectations for results and the better your analysis can be. But it also means there is an overabundance to sift through to find what is most valuable.

Accommodating the need for speed: Knowledge workers need to maintain a very high work rate and have little time to interrupt their momentum to try a new product or workflow. Real estate agents say that buyers decide within two minutes of walking through the front door whether they’re going to purchase the home. Knowledge workers will give you a bit more time than that – but don’t expect much more. Any new product must be easy to use and adopt and yield an almost immediate benefit to the user.

Four critical things to incorporate

In my experience—both as a power user and a product designer—products designed for knowledge workers must include a handful of things to be a success. However, four critical elements stand out when creating solutions that can solve knowledge workers’ problems and improve their performance.

Domain expertise

The scope of occupations that fall under the category of “knowledge worker” is quite broad, including technologists such as programmers and system analysts; creative types including engineers, architects, and designers; and regulatory and compliance specialists such as lawyers and CPAs. One common denominator is that the individuals in these roles are considered subject matter experts in their respective fields.

They respect competency, as well as intellectual and professional achievement, making it crucial for product designers to understand their business inside and out before approaching them with anything new. Knowledge workers often earn their living through analysis and scrutiny—meaning they can see through products that are not firmly rooted in their specific professional domains.

As a former partner in a large law firm, my expertise is in data privacy and litigation, so I developed a broad experience as it relates to the needs of legal users, whether corporate, compliance or dispute-oriented. I have been able to parlay that domain expertise into the products I work on, tapping into my understanding of both the big-picture needs and day-to-day challenges facing my customers—legal professionals—who are weeding through volumes of information with a goal of finding the best information they can, quickly, and then applying it to the problem or project at hand. Having at least one person on your team who can provide the insider view is extremely valuable.

An empathetic viewpoint

Domain expertise alone isn’t enough, it just provides that head start to get to what is perhaps the most important characteristic of a good product pro – a genuine empathy for your customers. As designers, we must be willing and able to walk in knowledge workers’ shoes and try to understand their pain points to produce valuable solutions.

For example, in an effort to instill empathy in its ergonomics design team, the Ford Motor Company has conducted a series of well-publicized experiments where their engineers don custom “empathy suits” to help them simulate the experiences of other drivers. The first is a pregnancy suit that adds an extra 13.6 kg—the average weight gained during pregnancy—and simulates the bulk and discomfort of a third-trimester pregnancy.

The second restricts joint movement and vision to simulate old age. While this may be an extreme example, product designers need to spend both the time and emotional energy necessary to better understand not just the behaviors of customers but also how they feel before they can begin to craft any type of solution to truly help them.

Another critical component of empathy is communication. It is important to feel and experience what customers go through and then be able to clearly articulate these challenges as well as prioritize, iterate, and scale them so that they fit into our design and build process. Today’s knowledge workers don’t have the time to reimagine their work, and it is the responsibility of product designers to get in their heads, understand their challenges, and reimagine a solution for them.

Technical knowledge

A common mistake in the product design field is to start with the technology and apply it to the problem. While it may be one approach to the problem, it’s a completely inverted way of approaching product design. Of course, it is important to stay up on the bleeding edge of technology—implementing it into your latest products and features as appropriate— but technology should be viewed as a means to finding a solution, not the solution itself.

Take artificial intelligence (AI), for example. Of course, AI has a very important role to play in modern business solutions, and virtually all large tech companies, including mine, employ AI somewhere in their solutions. But it still bears asking yourself “is this technology the best tool to solve this identified customer problem?”

The best technology providers in the game aren’t implementing AI just because it’s the latest technology trend; we are employing AI and machine learning technologies because, well applied and designed, they are an incredible tool to support our knowledge workers looking for that needle in a haystack or that “aha!” in the data. In short, these tools can power faster, deeper, and heretofore unattainable insights.

One of the most challenging elements of integrating technology into product design is making it easier to use, not harder. Seeking to solve client challenges, we often want to add features and functionality that we think can do that.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that technology is only helpful if users can seamlessly integrate it into their workflows. A product or solution requiring significant training or infringing on current workloads will likely be discarded, even if it can solve the problem.

Simply put, don’t do tech for tech's sake—do it because it unlocks value for your customers.

A well-defined feedback loop

A final element of designing for knowledge workers is to establish a well-defined feedback loop to document and measure the results of each incremental change you implement in your design as a driving force behind the iterative design process. Knowledge workers thrive on feedback analysis and self-examination, and as product designers, we need to as well.

Innovation starts with feedback that has been received over the years from customers and users. Sometimes the feedback makes perfect sense, and the time is ripe to drive forward and implement. More often though, feedback trickles in as small pieces of the puzzle, and it needs to percolate as more insight is gathered. Once feedback starts to coalesce—and we can see a recurring theme for solving the same problem—we realize we are onto something.

The insights gained from initial feedback often fuels new hypotheses. In most organizations, product teams and internal users can provide initial feedback to test any new hypothesis. Once satisfied that the idea is well-vetted internally, it’s time to roll it out to customers. Even when design teams have worked alongside a strong network of domain experts with a healthy dose of empathy, the customers inevitably provide valuable feedback, which often starts the iteration process again.

Designing new products for knowledge workers can be as rewarding as it is challenging. When starting a new project, it boils simply down to this—begin with the customers' problems or goals, bring genuine empathy into the process, and deploy the best technology that will make users faster, more accurate, and more efficient.

As knowledge workers ourselves, product managers and designers find fulfillment in producing quality work and revel in helping our customers be more productive. We ultimately gauge our success when a customer leaves their desk thinking, “I got something done today … and it wasn’t even painful.” Designing with that end goal in mind is key to setting up your product team for success.